A recent car accident case ruling by the 58th District Court in Texas was contested and brought before the Ninth Court of Appeals. The court upheld Judge Kent Walston‘s initial ruling.
Today we take a closer look into this case and the legal principles at play, including the difference between negligence and negligence per se, and what it might mean for your car accident settlement.
A brief history lesson before we delve into the implications of this ruling:
Legislature has divided the state of Texas into fourteen separate courts of appeals districts. Each court has one chief justice and at least two justices.
The Ninth Court of Appeals was created in 1915 to serve the Beaumont, Texas region. The Ninth Court of Appeals has jurisdiction over cases in the counties of Hardin, Jasper, Jefferson, Liberty, Montgomery, Newton, Orange, Polk, and San Jacinto.
During a meeting of the 78th Texas Legislature, it was decided that in 2005 the number of justices on the Ninth Court of Appeals would increase from three to four. The current justices are Chief Justice Steve McKeithen, Justice Charles Kreger, Justice Leanne Johnson, and Justice Hollis Horton. Carol Anne Harley serves as the Clerk of the Court.
On May 18th, 2014, Sasha and Chad Rebert were driving along Highway 82 in Jefferson County, Texas. Two cars were behind them.
Both of those cars then attempted to pass the Reberts on the left, failing to realize the Reberts were making a left turn.
The first passing car avoided collision, but the second car — driven by Julio Miranda-Lara — hit the Reberts’ driver’s side.
Chad and Sasha Rebert brought a lawsuit against Julio Miranda-Lara. The case went to trial, where a jury found Miranda-Lara solely at fault for the accident. He was ordered by Judge Kent Walston of the 58th District Court in Texas to pay for the Reberts’ personal injury damages.
Miranda-Lara appealed this decision, arguing that the court made three errors:
- Allowing traffic accident officer Randy Daws to testify with his opinions without expert knowledge. (Officer Daws was allowed to testify repeatedly, and without objection, that Miranda-Lara was passing unsafely on the left and caused the accident.)
- Providing influential instruction on the concept of “negligence per se” to the jury.
- Refusing to provide Miranda-Lara’s requested instructions regarding emergencies and unavoidable accidents to the jury.
What is Negligence Per Se?
What is the difference between negligence and negligence per se? These terms come into play most often in personal injury cases. They represent two different legal strategies, each involving different “standards of proof.”
Negligence is defined as a failure to exercise reasonable care. This breach of the duty of care then results in damage or injury to another person. In court, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant owed a duty of care, breached the duty of care, and that the breach was the actual and proximate cause of injury. After adequate investigation, the defendant may then be deemed “negligent,” also called “liable” or “at-fault.” Negligence can occur when a person behaves carelessly, whether or not they break a law in doing so.
Negligence per se, on the other hand, focuses on the violation of a specific law. In these cases, plaintiffs argue that the defendant’s negligence can be automatically assumed or inferred because they broke a law. (“Per se” is a Latin term which translates to “in itself.”) Laws are in place to protect the public, so therefore it can be assumed that breaking any law places another person in danger and violates the duty of care.
Typically, it is easier to prove negligence per se than negligence, because the law is on your side. Your personal injury lawyer can cite laws instead of untangling the motivations, rationale, and state of mind of the defendant.
The most common use of negligence per se is traffic violations, wherein drivers are automatically considered negligent for violating the traffic code.
In cases of negligence per se, a plaintiff will usually have to establish the following:
- The defendant violated a regulation or law enacted for safety reasons
- The plaintiff belongs to the class that was intended to be protected by the safety regulation or law
- The violation caused injury/damage to the plaintiff
Certain excuses are permitted for violations, including:
- A defendant’s incapacity made it reasonable for him to violate the statute
- A defendant neither knew nor should have known of the occasion for compliance
- A defendant was unable to comply even when using reasonable diligence or care
- The defendant was confronted by an emergency that was not caused by his misconduct
- Compliance would have involved a greater risk of harm to the defendant or others
How does this apply to the Reberts and Julio Miranda-Lara? A law in section 545.053-545.056 of the Texas Transportation Code states that if a vehicle is passing on the left, its driver must pass at a safe distance and ensure the left side is “clearly visible and free of approaching traffic for a distance sufficient to permit passing without interfering with the operation of the passed vehicle or a vehicle approaching from the opposite direction.”
In the third issue of his appeal, Miranda-Lara alleges the trial court failed to include situations in which driving left of center is authorized (like emergencies and unavoidable accidents). This meant the jury believed nothing in his situation authorized such a maneuver.
However, the appeals court pointed out that Miranda-Lara himself testified that he “attempted to pass in the left lane because the truck in front of him did so even though he could not see oncoming traffic in front of the truck he was following,” thereby making the maneuver dangerous, unauthorized, and illegal.
The Ninth Court of Appeals concluded that Miranda-Lara failed to timely object to the evidence presented by Officer Daws and, therefore, failed to preserve error in his first issue.
On August 31st, they overruled the second and third issues with the following statement:
“Because we cannot conclude that the improper inclusion of the negligence per se instruction probably caused the rendition of an improper verdict, it did not constitute harmful error. We overrule Miranda-Lara’s second and third issues.”
Negligence per se only applies to laws that do not leave any room for the defendant to make a discretionary call. If the statute requires the defendant to exercise their own judgment in applying it, then it doesn’t reach the level necessary for negligence per se.
Miranda-Lara argued that the cited section of the Texas Transportation Code could not trigger negligence per se because it required the driver in question to use their own discretion. The court of appeals did find that the trial court should not have used the negligence per se instruction because the code does require a driver to exercise judgement, as opposed to more absolute laws with clear statements like “don’t drive on the wrong side of the road” or “you MUST stop at a stop sign.” Rules like those do not give the driver any discretion to exercise their judgment, making negligence per se applicable.
However, the court also has to apply a standard of harm to its own proceedings. If there was an error – as there was here – did it cause any harm?
In this case, the Ninth Court of Appeals said that it did not, as there was no evidence in the record that showed the jury applied anything other than the ordinary care standard to find the defendant negligent. If there’s no harm, then there’s no foul, and the plaintiff keeps the original verdict.
Finally there’s the fourth issue, wherein the defendant wished to rebut the aforementioned instruction by providing the jury with additional instruction on how they could incorporate “emergency and unavoidable accident” defenses. However, there was no evidence supporting either of these theories. Therefore, it was determined the judge did not make an error by not including them.
In the end, Miranda-Lara’s appeal was rejected and the Ninth Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the trial court.
What does this mean for Texas car accident lawyers and their victims?
This case shows us that it is difficult to apply negligence per se when it comes to laws that leave room for interpretation. The words referenced in the Texas Transportation Code in this case relied on a driver’s own discretion. This was a matter of subjectivity, not a clear and objective breaking of a law.
While you can use laws like these in a roundabout way to prove someone’s negligence, it is not a strong enough approach to apply negligence per se.